Residents' groups express their unease at planning process in Bucks

Deputy council leader responds to community groups' claims of 'uncomfortable practices' within the planning system

Wednesday, 11th August 2021, 3:07 pm

Senior officials at Buckinghamshire Council have urged campaigners to provide 'specific' examples of issues in the local planning system that they have concerns about, following an open letter to council leader Martin Tett.

In their open letter, seven residents' and community groups from across Bucks addressed what they call 'uncomfortable practices' in the Bucks Council and former district councils' planning departments.

The groups, which include the Maids Moreton & Foscote Action Group, The Buckingham Society and the Winslow Residents Association, claim that a 'developer-led culture' prevails at Bucks Council and that this is aided by an 'officer-centric' decision-making process.

Deputy leader of Buckinghamshire Council, Gareth Williams

The Maids Moreton & Foscote Action Group is fighting against a 170-home development behind Manor Park.

Responding to the open letter, Bucks Council's deputy leader and cabinet member for planning and regeneration, Gareth Williams, said: "Whilst I am new to the portfolio, I am very clear in my desire to ensure that all planning decisions in Buckinghamshire involve those communities who are affected by new developments. I am also clear, however, that, whilst involvement is very important, the council has a statutory duty as planning authority to make what can often be difficult planning decisions whilst taking account of community views.

"There will always be occasions when the views of the community cannot be accommodated in making planning decisions. The council has a responsibility to the wider Buckinghamshire community to act fairly, responsibly and in accordance with the planning legislation."

The residents' groups raised seven issues in their letter, the first of which was the "apparent pre-determination" of Local Plan allocations and planning applications. They claimed that consultation processes are merely ‘box ticking’ exercises and residents' objections are "swept aside and ignored if they do not agree with planning officer objectives".

Still from a campaign video released by the Maids Moreton & Foscote Action Group

Mr Williams replied: " We may have a different view of how community views have been taken into account in determining Local Plan allocations and I simply say that not agreeing with a particular view does not amount to ignoring or ‘sweeping aside’ those views. The Local Plan process, as you know, is very rigorous and the council must be in a position to justify the decisions it has made or otherwise risk having a plan found unsound. That said, I repeat my firm priority is to ensure that as the work on the new Buckinghamshire Local Plan progresses, we will undertake widespread community engagement in the preparation of that plan."

Secondly, the residents' groups said: "Recommendations from the planning department should be evidence based. In particular, up to-date evidence on infrastructure requirements, as well as household projections, must include any evidence submitted by local communities, parish and town councils."

Mr Williams replied: "The council makes recommendations on Local Plan allocations and planning applications on the most up-to-date evidence base available. We also take account of evidence that may be submitted by third parties, although the weight that can be attached to such submissions may vary depending on the circumstances."

In its third point, the open letter says the planning department should provide information in a timely and accessible manner to all interested parties, and all decisions and discussions relating to any one development site should be open to public scrutiny.

It adds: "The current volume of Freedom of Information Requests submitted by residents across the county suggests that Buckinghamshire Council falls woefully short of providing all the information voluntarily."

Mr Williams replied: "The council publishes all of the relevant evidence and data that is relied upon to make planning decisions. I can assure you that there is no policy of withholding information and, without any specifics, I can comment no further on this point."

Fourthly, the residents' groups say that the local parish or town council and local ward members must have the right to be party to any pre-application discussions between the planning department and a developer, and any such discussions should be minuted and uploaded to the planning portal.

Mr Williams replied: "It is a well-established principle that planning authorities are able to offer confidential advice to applicants as part of a pre-application process. Very often the confidential nature of those discussions is to protect commercial confidentiality. In the event those discussions lead to a planning application then the pre-application advice does become available. I would not support broadening out those meetings as they are likely to reduce the number of applicants seeking pre-application advice and in turn, evidence shows, would lead to poorer quality planning applications being submitted."

The fifth point concerns site visits. Where there are local objections to a planning application, the residents' groups say, Bucks Council should "commit to encouraging members of planning committees to carry out a site visit prior to any decision and to engage in meaningful discussions with local communities and local councils without the accusation of being ‘pre-determined’."

Mr Williams replied: "The council has recently decided to introduce a standard approach to site visits, across all of the committees in Buckinghamshire. This will entail each area planning and strategic sites committee undertaking organised group site visits. The sites to be visited for each meeting will be determined in advance by the relevant chairman, with the advice of the lead planning officer. Of course, in the event that an application comes to committee that has not been visited, the option for the committee to defer determination pending a site visit remains open for the committee to take."

Sixthly, the residents' groups say: "Officers, and those in the employ of the council who act as planning application consultees, should abide by their professional responsibilities for transparent, ethical and objectively assessed decision making, placing equal weight on evidence received from all sources."

Mr Williams replied: "The council officers certainly do abide by their professional responsibilities and will place the appropriate weight on evidence relating to specific planning issues. If you have evidence that a council officer, or a member for that matter, has acted inappropriately, then you should make a complaint to the Monitoring Officer who will investigate in the usual way."

The seventh point concerns planning officers' interpretation of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). The residents groups say: "Accountability for ‘sustainable development’ - to include flooding, loss of BMV agricultural land, biodiversity net gain amongst other key components of ‘sustainable development’ – must be upheld by planning officers, and they must advise voting members accordingly."

Mr Williams replied: "The council employs very competent planning officers, and I and the council have every confidence in their ability to make appropriate planning judgements and recommendations and to interpret the NPPF. As I have said earlier in this letter, the fact that a planning judgement is made that others may not agree with, does not make it wrong, it simply means there is a different point of view. In many cases, that is where the planning committee is responsible for balancing the competing pieces of evidence and making their own judgement."

And he added: "Whatever reforms to the planning system that come forward, the council is committed to ensuring proper and appropriate community engagement in the shaping of the county. However, that engagement will need to be on terms that are understood by all - the council as planning authority has a statutory duty to prepare a local plan and in order to be sound that plan should allocate land for housing, employment and retail (amongst other uses) to meet the future needs of our communities.

"That will require some difficult choices to be made and I therefore very much hope that all parties can approach that engagement with an open mind."